JUST one year after cameras were invented in Europe in 1839, they arrived in the subcontinent, which was at the forefront of technology at the time.
It sparked a love affair with the new medium, with sacred sites, wealthy maharajahs and revered holy men some of the first subjects to be captured.
Those images now feature in the New Medium: Photography in India exhibition of rare black and white photographs from 1855 to 1930.
The display highlights the development of the revolutionary medium which was recorded by masters in the field, including Raja Deen Dayal and Man Ray.
Pyramids of canon balls piled high in the forecourt of the Pearl Mosque in Agra is one of the earliest images on display.
The large albumen print by Dr John Murray was taken at a politically significant moment, shortly after the Indian mutiny of 1857, and records a stark juxtaposition of symbols of faith and war.
“Dr John Murray was an English photographer who lived in Agra. Professionally he was a surgeon in the East India Company army, but he was also an amateur photographer,” Prahlad Bubbar, a dealer and consultant of Indian and Islamic art who presented the collection, told Eastern Eye.
“He was in Agra at the time of the mutiny so that’s a very key image, with the pearl mosque and the cannon balls. They are very early contact type prints, they represent the forefront of technology and chemistry at the time. They are quite special images.”
Murray arrived in India in 1833 and developed his skills during the 1850s, documenting the grandeur of the Mughal monuments in Agra and Delhi.
“There was a phase in the 1860s and 70s where there was an institutional interest in recording all the monuments. The government wanted photographers to go out to take pictures of them. The photographers were from the West but they were based in India,” Bubbar explained.
The popularity of the photographic portrait grew as the 19th century progressed among Indian royalty, rivalling miniature painting as the primary medium for historical documentation and the presentation of power and prestige.
Another early photograph, taken by Deen Dayal, depicts a seated Maharaja of Bijawar and his court and captures the full pomp and regalia of the scene.
Deen Dayal was India’s most celebrated 19th century photographer. He toured the country extensively, working for both the Indian and British elite, before being appointed as court photographer to the Nizam of Hyderabad.
Bubbar told EE: “Raja Deen Dayal is a pre-eminent photographer of the 19th century. The images are special because they are among the early encounters of people from remote, princely states. It’s interesting how these people are probably coming face to face with a camera for the first time.
“A lot of the early photography tended to be of architecture and monuments because people were moving. The shutter speed was quite slow, so they would have to be still for about 30 seconds.
“Technically, these are some pretty astonishing images in terms of preservation. The ones that have survived the best are those that have been kept in albums away from the light. I hardly ever come across images of this quality, so it’s quite exceptional.”
Other notable images include a portrait of a holy man adorned with flower garlands, sitting on a tiger skin, which was captured in a studio setting, and the elegant Maharaja of Bundi displaying his ceremonial sword and shield.
“The holy men were real people and often had a fan following in their own right. They would want to be photographed because some people might want a picture of their guru in their house. And the Maharaja of Bundi was one of the most iconic maharajas for his Rajput look,” Bubbar said.
The compact exhibition concludes with the image of Raja Tukoji Rao Holkar III’s son, Yeshwantrao Holkar II, who was photographed by the legendary American artist Man Ray.
Holkar was a patron of the European avant-garde, commissioning works from designers of the time, such as Brancusi, Emile Jacque Ruhlmann and Le Corbusier.
The personal and informal image provides a final glimpse of lost world of princely opulence and splendour. “It’s quite special to have a Man Ray image. He has since become known as the most famous photographer of the 20th century. He was known for his experimental work but he also did society portraits – this is quite a personal piece,” Bubbar added.
The New Medium: Photography in India 1855-1930 is open Monday to Friday, 10am-6pm, until July 10 at Prahlad Bubbar, 33 Cork St, London, W1S 3NQ.